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Culinary Students take on the Farmers Market

Every year now for the past 4 years the second year culinary students and I go to the farmers market. Many of them are unsure of what we are going to purchase or how it all works and there are the occasional students that will declare, “I have to work, is this required?” Let’s see get up bright and early, for me that means getting up around 5:30, and meet at the market by 8:00 AM; is this required? Well no, but would engaging yourself in your education and taking on an opportunity that could reap interesting possibilities for the upcoming menu be required?

The trip to the market every year involves going to the winter market, the outdoor market doesn’t open until our last week of service, and the type of product available at the winter market is tough on the creativity. In the summer you will find a plethora of vibrant green vegetables, mushrooms and other fantastically fresh products. The Dane county farmers market is considered to be one of the best and it is stated to be one of the largest producer-only farmer’s markets in the country.  The winter market is held at the senior center just off the square. Usually by this time of the year the market is at its low point for goods available. This is actually why I like the market for my curriculum; if students can create a great menu from such a limited supply you can only imagine what they could create with a bounty of goods.

We had a good turn out of students on Saturday and as always there are lots of questions from students in regards to what they can purchase or not purchase. The rules are simple; I give them the money, they go with their course group and purchase whatever they want for their course items. I think there is a bit of hesitation on their part; really you are just going to give me the money and I can go purchase whatever I want? This menu is by far the toughest menu they will have to work with in our program; they are in charge of producing food that will still fit the “gourmet” category and have enough for two service days. I also have the expectation that they create food that exhibits the finesse and handling of product that will bring to the dining experience something special. This may mean they have purchased a tough cut of meat; the challenge will be to take that tough cut of meat and reproduce a product that will amaze their guest and create a stir of emotion not thought possible.

The other fun part for me is my time at the market. I get to renew old friendships of my farmer friends and those who might have attended the market. Where I live, I don’t get to the summer market very often, I really don’t have to as my family tends to have a pretty good size garden of their own. We also hunt so the market for us doesn’t really fit our needs. We do make it down occasionally during the summer but not as often as we should. Sometimes when I bring students to the winter market, people around us will wonder what is going on? There are usually around 20 to 25 of us that will suddenly converge on the market. This year was no exception and of course people looked over at us and wondered where did all these people come from? This year I had the opportunity to chat with a bison vendor who wanted to know everything about what we were up to. I shared with him this was our “Slow Food” menu and students are challenged to purchase local ingredients to produce this week’s menu. He seemed intrigued by all of this and probably was wondering if any of those students would be making their way to his table? I also ran into Terese Allen. Teresse and I have known each other for years, Terese and her husband used to frequent our restaurant, The Sandhill Inn, and she was on our advisory board at the college for years. Teresse is a Wisconsin jewel when it comes to food. She is the author of several in state cookbooks and has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to food in Wisconsin. I always appreciate her depth of knowledge. She is currently working on her next book and as always I am excited to see it come out.

Well after the students made all of their purchases we loaded up my car. They can now go on home or to work and I will take the goods back to school. Monday morning in one hour the students will write their menu and submit it to me. I look forward to this; I get to see if what they have learned over the last two years has come to fruition and how they apply their education to this menu. For the alumni reading this note and you may be wondering, “Why didn’t we do this?” All I can state is that overtime the lab has grown, developed and recreated itself to meet the needs of today’s chef. I am sure that as time goes on we will take on new avenues of recreating the experience in our program due to an ever changing industry.

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